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Education

Enrollment at most of Oregon’s public colleges and universities is still down

Students walk on the Eastern Oregon University campus during the 2021 fall term.
Students walk on the Eastern Oregon University campus during the 2021 fall term.

Enrollment at the majority of Oregon’s public colleges and universities is still down after more than a year in the pandemic. The declines reflected in new numbers released recently by state higher education officials follow a down year in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced college administrators to close campuses and cancel classes.

Although some schools have seen increases, most of Oregon’s higher education institutions are still seeing fewer students — particularly the state’s community colleges, which took the brunt of falling enrollment last year.

The number of students at community colleges around the state went down slightly this fall, a 0.4% decrease compared to last year, according to the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC.

But, that’s still far below than the pre-pandemic headcount. Compared to 2019, headcount at the community colleges is down by nearly 24%, according to the HECC.

Public universities saw a slight decline in headcount this year compared to last year as well — 0.5%. That’s a dip of 4.3% compared to 2019.

Oregon’s seven public universities have largely returned to on-campus classes, while many community colleges are still primarily offering classes online this fall.

Both colleges and universities saw even larger drops when measuring full-time equivalent students. That means students may be taking fewer classes on average.

Ben Cannon, the HECC’s executive director, said typically during recessions or economic turmoil, there’s a boost in post-secondary enrollment. But, that’s not yet happened in the course of the pandemic.

“This commission continues to believe post-secondary education and training is more vital than ever,” Cannon said in a meeting Friday. “But for many prospective students, there are work opportunities that may be diminishing their ability to or interest in enrolling in post-secondary education and training, particularly as costs continue to rise.”

Though most of Oregon’s community colleges had either small increases or decreases in enrollment — one saw a major increase. The student headcount at Clackamas Community College jumped 23% this fall compared to last year.

CCC said much of that increase isn’t from traditional community college students, but rather from area high schoolers.

“We attribute this increase to our strong partnerships with our local high schools and the robust co-enrollment opportunities we have for our students to take high school courses that also count for college credits,” Tara Sprehe, CCC’s dean of academic foundations and connections, said in a statement.

CCC partners with more than 40 high schools through its High School Connections programs, which offers students the chance to earn free or discounted college credit through the school.

Even with the boost in enrolled students this year, headcount enrollment at CCC is still 1,300 lower than 2019.

Portland Community College saw one of the more dramatic drops in enrollment in the state last year — about 21% fewer students than 2019. This year, enrollment continued to dip, by about 2.6% more.

“We might attribute that decline to several factors, but especially ongoing economic and family stress in our community,” Katy Ho, PCC’s vice president of academic affairs, said in a statement.

Ho said childcare, employment and transportation have presented challenges for PCC students during the pandemic.

“We do hope that our numbers will trend in a more positive way as our programming and services are here to help our community, and that we’re doing our best to respond to the various pressures through expanded support for our students,” Ho said.

Oregon’s public universities saw slightly more stability than the community colleges. They had also fared better initially, in 2020.

Both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon saw more than a 2% increase in enrollment.

This year marked a record in total enrollment at OSU, and UO saw a record number of first-year students.

Western Oregon University saw the largest decrease in students this fall compared to last year — a decline of more than 11%.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.